By Steve Lichtenstein
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Believe it or not, the Nets franchise, despite their mostly miserable history, has not been totally bereft of superstars.
Back in their ABA days, Nassau Coliseum fans were entertained by Rick Barry and, of course, Dr. J., Julius Erving, in their primes. New Jersey fans endured a long drought, but then Jason Kidd earned icon status by single-handedly changing the culture in leading the Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances. And even Vince Carter was a player fans lined up to see, even if he regressed a bit during his New Jersey tenure.
But then the Nets traded Carter away four years ago for pennies on the dollar as part of their tank job in advance of their move to Brooklyn.
However, as part of his master plan, owner Mikhail Prokhorov envisioned his magnificent new arena would be home to a new signature NBA superstar, someone worthy of New York City headliner status.
After many of the game’s top players, as well as other executives who employed them, spurned the Nets’ offers, general manager Billy King settled on a big fish from the Great Salt Lake a little over two years ago.
Point guard Deron Williams, a three-time All Star and two-time
Olympic gold medalist, was acquired to play the hero.
The price was steep, as the Nets sent Devin Harris, an All Star as a Net, plus the equivalent of three first round draft choices to Utah.
That didn’t include the cost the Nets committed to in order to keep Williams in the fold as a free agent over this past summer. The max contract, valued at just under $100 million, certified Williams as the man in Brooklyn.
Which also meant pressure to deliver on superstar expectations.
Well, while Williams has hardly been a bust, we’ve really only seen glimpses during these past two years of the genius Prokhorov imagined would enthrall his customer base. He simply hasn’t captured the fans’ hearts, not in the way that LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe , and Durant have for their followers.
Some of that could be traced to Williams having to endure, in no particular order, a talent-deficient supporting cast in New Jersey, unimaginative coaching, and a myriad of injuries that hindered his scoring potential.
This season, Williams has had to undergo three cortisone injections as well as plasma therapy to reduce the pain in both ankles, the latest of which kept him out of two games just prior to the All Star break.
Since then, we’ve seen a difference in Williams’ bounce, especially his lift on his perimeter jump shot.
The improved shooting percentage numbers (45 percent, with 48 percent from three-point range, in his first eight games following the break, compared to 41 percent and 35 percent before) provide further proof.
His game may have been on the upswing, but still no one was calling it elite.
Until last night.
Williams poured in 42 points, 33 in a first half where he established an NBA record with nine three-point field goals. He owned the building.
He knocked down his first eight shots, seven of them three-pointers, before missing with 3:21 remaining in the first quarter with the Nets up, 31-9. Washington as a team did not outscore Williams until the first minute of the second half.
“I just found myself really open,” said Williams. “I hit the first couple and so I just kept shooting. The main thing was that we needed a win at home so I wanted to come out aggressive. I didn’t know that I’d be that aggressive.”
Despite the lopsided score, the fans were into every possession, with the pitch building as soon as it seemed clear that Williams would release the ball.
If it was for a pass, the fans groaned, as if they were being deprived of witnessing a magical moment. Williams felt it.
“I thought they (the fans) were gonna boo me one time because I didn’t shoot it,” said Williams. “I stepped behind a screen and might have had a shot and passed it down to Joe (Johnson) and they kind of went, ‘aw’.”
Williams did hoist it up 24 times, making 15, which included an 11-for-16 mark from three-point land, one three-pointer shy of tying the single-game League mark held by Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall.
There were catch-and-shoots, pull-ups in transition, and step-backs when a Wizard defender went under a Nets’ screen. For good measure, Williams stutter-stepped into the paint for a few lay-ins.
As it became clear that Williams had it going, each make produced an increasingly thunderous roar from the crowd, with the Nets’ reserves also leaping out of their seats to pay homage to their teammate.
The energy in the building was later channeled into power forward Reggie Evans, rebounder extraordinaire and free throw-shooting misfit. Evans, who pulled down a career-high 24 boards in 32 minutes, was intentionally fouled throughout the fourth quarter. He converted only 5-of-16 foul shots, but the crowd was so alive with “Reggie! Reggie!” chants during these attempts that it sounded like Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.
Not even a bump from Wizards reserve guard Garrett Temple in the third quarter that caught Williams’ knee could ruin this night.
It became an opportunity to get his teammates more involved, with Williams dishing out five assists in the second half.
Williams, who should have been relaxing on the bench for a good chunk of the second half but was needed when the Nets’ inconsistent second unit threatened to let the Wiz back in the game, showed off the complete package last night. Controlling tempo, defending the quickest opposing guard, finding teammates when and where they need the ball—Williams had been doing that all season, even if his shooting efficiency was disappointing, though not to Nets interim coach P.J. Carlesimo.
“Deron Williams is not one of the things I’m worried about,” said Carlesimo. “Him playing the way he’s playing now is to me just the normal outcome. Deron Williams, when he’s healthy, this is how he’s going to play, the way he’s played since the All Star break.”
If that’s really the case, and we’ll find out soon enough as the 36-26 Nets get back to work tonight in Atlanta in the second leg of a four-games-in-five-nights run, then the Nets’ outlook may not be as
gloomy as I have often portrayed in these posts.
He’s not going to go for 42 points every night, but the Nets need Williams to continue to play like the superstar they are paying him to be.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
Is D-Will finally turning into the superstar the Nets need him to be? Let us know…